The ANS: Soviet dolphin translating instrument. Pt 1

October 31, 2007

ans4Sitting in a forgotten room under the streets of Moscow in the Zoological University basmement is a large iron machine. The machine has been looked after and protected from demolition for the last fourty years by it’s guardian, Stanislav. the machine, called ‘ANS’ , looks like an old printing press, it is black, and smells of oil and ink. the ANS takes time to start up when its fabric covered cables are connected, its cogs spin and the glass plates whirr. It hums loudly.

The function of the ANS would be impossible to determine from it’s appearance: The only part of the machine that gives a clue to it’s intended purpose is a small ‘piano’ keyboard vertically positioned next to a greasy inked glass plate: The ANS is infact a musical instrument, an early synthesiser, conceived by the jazz loving military scientist Yvgeny Murzin during the Second World War (or ‘Great Patriotic War’ in Russia). Murzin’s ambition was to create a universal instrument that would combine the visual and audio aspects of composition in one machine(Murzin christened the machine the ‘ANS’ after Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin who’s synaesthetic theories were very influential in the USSR at the time), freeing the musician and composer from the restaints of standard composition and giving them an unlimited palette of sounds.

(image:Miles Miles holding a glass disk from the ANS dec 2001)

ans2The basic theory of the machine was to rebuild a sound from it’s visible image – echoing Scriabin’s ‘colour organ’. At the heart of the machine was the sound generator: 144 glass disks, each disk containing multiple pure sine waveforms which when spun at varying speeds produced multiple and complex combinations of tones. The sound was created by directing a light beam through the spinning glass disk to a photo-electric cell – which in turn created a voltage tone output whcih could be heard through a set of speakers. Incredibly, each of the 144 glass discs were hand drawn, in itself a phenomenal task which took many years to complete.

Following Murzin’s light-to-sound design of the ANS was the control mechanism. The composer simply wrote into a glass plate covered in black ink – the higher the line the higher the pitch (generated from the glass disks) the lower the line, the lower the pitch. The horizontal axis of the plate represents time, so the length of the line determines it’s longevity. To play the composition a ‘light reading head’ traveled over the inked plate and picked up a light beam shining through the lines made by the composer ( interestingly, the speed of the ‘play head’ could vary without altering the pitch or timbre of the piece a unique and powerful musical and composition tool). The vertical keyboard manual when presssed created straight lines in the ink – therefore producing fixed interval tones.

ans1The ANS project was not supported by the state and Murzin had continual problems self financing the instrument. As well as co-opting friends and colleagues to help out, the sheer size of the machine was a major issue and it was only until 1958 that the ANS found a secure home – oddly enough in the Zoological University. It was here at the University where the instruments was pressed into military service. Dolphins it was agreed would be useful weapons – planting mines, locating enemy ships and so-on, if only they could be understood (and vice-versa). The ANS with it’s unlimited range of sounds and timbres was seen as a viable way of decoding and learning dolphin language:Photographic images of dolphin calls were drawn on the the ANS plate, analysed, altered and presumably played back to the dolphins…


While all this delphinic research was going on the ANS was beginning to be used by a new generation of electronic composers ( including Edward Artemiev – composer of soundtracks to Tarkovsky’s films ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’, Oleg Buloshkin, Vladimir Martinov, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Alexander Nemtin and Stanislav Kriechi – the ANSs’ keeper) who had realised the potential of the instrument.

4 Responses to “The ANS: Soviet dolphin translating instrument. Pt 1”

  1. Ah-HA! I now know where you got the name for your blog from! Good flick I must say, not what I expected but good. Apparently that great thespian, John Travolta, is involved in a remake…

  2. crab said

    No! No! No! that can’t be? tell me you’re joking…

  3. Hello Simon,

    I shit you not, “A Roadside Picnic film based on the novel is now in development by Columbia TriStar, to feature John Travolta, with a 2008 release date.”

    Please refer to

    As we know, A Roadside Picnic is the name of the story the movie is based on…

    I guess his character will be busy ‘Stayin’ Aliiiiiive’


  4. Kevin said

    A quick refresher:

    its= possessive form

    it’s= contraction of “it is”

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